As enthusiasm for RFID wanes innovation should buck trend

Related tags Rfid Pmmi

Technical problems, consumer suspicions and high prices have served
to put many cosmetics companies off investing in Radio frequency
identification (RFID) technology. However, falling prices and new
technology allowing tags to be turned off and read faster means
that enthusiasm is likely to resurge.

RFID has long been touted as the future of logistics by allowing retailers and suppliers to track goods throughout the supply chain. However high prices for tags and systems has held enthusiasm at bay despite mandates from retailers like Wal-Mart, which last year announced it would require its top suppliers to implement the tracking technology.

Consumer fears relating to privacy and technical snags, such as the lack of a common standard, have also hurt the adoption of the technology. A shakeout is due in an industry suffering from the immaturity of the technology, according to a report by ABI Research.

While the enthusiasm for RFID seems to have taken a slight pause as suppliers work out teething problems, the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) is highlighting the latest technology at this year's Pack Expo in Las Vegas.

The show will feature a new RFID pavilion, highlighting developments such as new tag production methods, label applicators and encoders, faster readability, lower prices and a new generation of the technology.

The new Gen 2 standard, which Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, and other retailers would like to see everyone migrate to eventually, offers several advantages including encryption, a potential for deactivation at point of sale and greater global compatibility.

Gen 2 standards are due to begin appearing in RFID products by the end of this year.While there are sure to be Gen 2 printers, encoders and readers introduced in the coming months, some hardware currently being sold is designed for upgrading at little or no cost, PMMI stated in an announcement.

The association recommends that those currently implementing RFID insist that the system be upgradeable to Gen 2 tags at little or no cost. They must also specify that the system is capable of identifying and rejecting any dead tags before and after encoding.

One way to ensure fast implementation is to use a general turnkey system rather than creating a specialised system for the company.

"Determine whether it would be advantageous to separate the RFID label from printed information so placement can be optimized for each and to minimise chances that the encoding step will slow line speed,"​ the association advises.

The key is to achieve flexibility to meet a company's changing needs and any future developments in the technology.

Another boost to the technology will be the decline in tag prices. The best tag price currently stands at about 15 cents each and requires a large order, still too pricey for many in the cosmetics and toiletry packaging industry.

However a variety of factors are slowly converging to push tag prices toward that number everyone wants to see - less than five cents each, stated the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), which holds the annual show.

Growth in demand for tags as well the entrance of new players will help boost volumes and increase competition. These two forces will also put pressure on prices for encoders, printers and applicators as well as plant infrastructure like readers, antennas and wireless backbones, the PMMI believes.

New tag production methods also will push down costs. One promising possibility is replacing the etched copper process typically used to produce the antenna portion of the tag with a printing process using conductive ink, which could be applied directly on the case. A number of companies are working in this area, the PMMI stated.

It's also likely tag size will shrink as chip and antenna technology matures and less power is needed for readers to collect data, the PMMI stated.

To take full advantage of the data RFID can generate, the next step is to integrate the application of tag-equipped labels with other systems used by companies. As a result, many vendors recommend moving the label application step to the packaging line rather than deferring it until product arrives at or departs from the warehouse, or outsourcing the function.

In addition, tag capacity also is increasing. Several label converters now produce labels with a new 128-bit Class 1 RFID tag that doubles the capacity of its 64-bit predecessor and provides 96 user programmable bits. The higher capacity allows packagers to expand the amount of data encoded beyond a simple license plate to include information like point of origin.

Since RFID tags are presently most often as part of a pressure-sensitive label structure, some packagers find an existing label applicator can handle the job.

A conveyor-mounted stationary reader verifies that the tag is good after the label is applied. The bad tag can either be removed or a good tag could simply be applied over the bad one, the PMMI stated in an announcement.

If the tag is readable, the data is sent to an inkjet printer to print the human readable information on the case. If the tag is not readable, the case passes through the inkjet station without being marked, and is rerouted through the tag applicator for application of a good tag.

The PackExpo show​, which runs from 26-28 September will also feature products with the Gen 2 standard approved by a standards consortium at the end of 2004.

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